Why Does Purity Culture Leave out Consent?

Samantha Field recently wrote two posts on consent on her blog, Defeating the Dragons. She was seeking to answer a question: Why evangelical purity advocates seem unable to talk about consent except to mock it. I found her insights incredibly insightful. (And this isn’t an aberration for Samantha—she’s brilliant and has an incredibly moving story and you should all read her blog.)

In her first post, Samantha wrote that:

They don’t teach consent because teaching consent would undermine one of their basic assumptions about people. Namely, the assumption that every single last person–most especially men, but also women–are basically nymphos who are straining at their leashes every single second of every single day and if you let that sex-crazed beast out for even just a moment then BAM it’s all over and you’re not a virgin anymore and that’s horrible because now you’re a half-eaten candybar or a cup full of spit.

This is why the “how far is too far?” question is almost unanimously answered with “you can’t do anything that might get your motor going, because the second you’re aroused– at all– there’s virtually nothing you’ll be able to do to stop yourself from having sex.”

To them, consent is always guaranteed. There’s no such thing as a person who would say no to an opportunity to have sex. Ever. The only thing you have to do to give consent is be alive.

Samantha goes on to explain that teaching young people about consent actively undermines what purity advocates teach about human sexuality, because teaching that people may not always want to have sex removes “the ominous boogeyman of your inner sexual demons.” In other words, all the bans on being alone with someone of the opposite sex, on holding hands, on kissing, etc., all of these ideas are predicated on the idea that only layer upon layer of rules will keep sex from spontaneously happening.

As Samantha explains:

If people are capable of saying no, I don’t want to have sex with you, then teaching people that they cannot ever be alone with someone is sort of pointless.

And she’s right. Consent is based on the idea that people may sometimes not want to have sex even in the absence of any form of religious abstinence teachings. This does not fit evangelical purity advocates’ narrative. It puts lie to their need for rules and restrictions—rules and restrictions that in fact only serve to hyper-sexualize every touch and every interaction.

In her second post, Samantha adds to this:

My partner suggested that if you asked someone who wants everyone to stay a virgin until they’re married why they don’t teach consent, one of the possible answers you might get is because it doesn’t matter.

That … struck me. I sat there and stared at him with my jaw hanging open because it took me a second to wrap my brain around it. What do you mean it DOESN’T MATTER?! This is the matter-ing-est idea of ALL TIMEBut then I realized he was right, because for the people who are teaching that everyone must save their virginity for their, of course, heterosexual marriage–consent is for people who aren’t married.

Der.

As Samantha goes on to explain, evangelicals tend to see sex within marriage as a duty or an obligation. At the very least, evangelical women are told that if they don’t have enough sex with their husbands, their husbands will go elsewhere for sex. Within marriage, sex is seen as a given, and consent as unimportant. The closest evangelicals tend to go toward dealing with marital rape is to stress that the Bible commands husbands to love their wives.

And for people who aren’t married, well, they’re not supposed to be having sex either way. Consent doesn’t matter because nothing remotely near sex should be occurring. Consent doesn’t matter because sexual activity is wrong regardless of consent. In fact, a discussion of consent is actually a problem, because it suggests someone is considering premarital sex. Consent is not just irrelevant, it actually undermines evangelical purity teachings.

Evangelical purity advocates don’t ignore consent for no reason. They resist discussing or teaching consent because it is both irrelevant to their sexual ethic and in fact undermines their sexual ethic.

But consent is important, as Samantha’s own story highlights. Samantha grew up in an evangelical homeschooling family and was raped by her fiance. Evangelical purity teachings left her with no way to make sense of what happened—except to blame herself. As she puts it:

To me, the biggest reason why it’s important to teach consent and sexual agency is so that people of all genders can recognize the difference between consensual sex acts and sexual assault or rape. I had no clue for almost three years that I had been raped because I believed in the myths that purity culture had taught me–that “men will only go as far as you let them” and that men are tempted by women being impure–dressing immodestly, behaving sensually . . . that I must have done something to tell him that I was willing to have sex with him, or he wouldn’t have done it, even though I was begging him to stop and telling him that he was hurting me the entire time.

Evangelical purity advocates have a problem, a very, very big problem.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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